Friday, 8 October 2010

Book guilt: character

A conversation tonight about book guilt, the guilty pleasure of reading for pleasure. I suspect this is fairly common among writers, and I myself suffer from it. I have to do so much reading as part of my work - much of it with its own pleasures of course - that reading something simply because I feel like it seems transgressive and wrong. This is particularly the case with novels, since I am not much good at reading a chapter at a time. My tendency is to seize on a novel and devour it, paper, binding and all. That's when it's good. When it is less than good I am seized instead by a kind of fury and I either let it drop or throw it at the wall. I have gone to the trouble of all this guilt for this?! Granted, I rarely throw novels, but they have all too often been known quietly to drop from my hand never to be picked up again.

The idea of seizing the lot at once might very well be one of the problems of being a lyric poet, albeit one of a historical, faintly philosophical, faintly epic, temperament. I want the experience whole, like a poem: something complete at a deep, instinctive glance. At the same time, a single paragraph of a well written novel can detain me for a lot longer than it probably should, to the extent that I cease caring about the fates of the characters. In other words I read it as if it were a poem. Not as something poetic: as a poem. There is the deep glance with all the pleasures of texture, music and ambiguity

Most characters in most novels don't do very much for me, chiefly because I have a shaky grasp of character. I don't quite believe in character as such. I mean in real people too. People are rarely full characters to me. People's characters are an impenetrable other, just as impenetrable as my own character is. People are certainly presences, which is quite a different thing. It may be that characters have to appear in stories to be recognised. The best I can do in terms of story is the bottomless anecdote, in which some incident or other is played out against the white noise of history. History is the sensation of phenomena as echo: presence is phenomenon as haunting.

Characters in the best novels convince me by a kind of permanent believable presence. I can engage with them fully as I can with the presence of other people. The white noise of their own history walks around with them, making a faint, ghostly, buzzing noise that is the equivalent of haunting.

I suspect there are very few people we can feel deep and lasting love for in their absence, maybe only a handful in a lifetime. We feel partly constructed by them. Their construction of us has been careful, loving, furiously passionate, yet calm. What they have wanted to construct is ourselves as we are in their presence. It is, furthermore, how we would have wished to be constructed. Few people in a lifetime can construct us that way. It is good to be constructed. Constructed, that is, as both presence and character.

Maybe that which is desirable in life, in other people, is precisely what is desirable in a book. And vice versa. I must therefore assume that my desire is for that which is complete at a deep instinctive glance. That and the accompanying white noise of history that buzzes in their voices and glows in their bones.


Alfred Corn said...

Fictional characters make no lasting impression? Really? Does that include dramatic literature? No Hamlet, no Lear, no Cleopatra, no Mme. Ranevskaya? In fiction, no Don Quixote, no Pere Goriot, no La Sanseverina, no Natasha, no Pierre Bezhukov, no Dorothea Brooke, no Peggoty, no Charles Swann, no Duchesse de Guermantes?

George S said...

Oh Alfred, there I am saying quite clearly 'most characters in most novels' and you throw great fiction at me.

In thinking most characters in most novels, I feel I am tugging the end of a string that leads somewhere and that the notion of construction of character may be at the end of it.

The construction of character is an uncomfortable act for me. Asked to describe someone I know well I am nervous in describing the person in the confident way the average novelist feels entitled to do. I am all too aware of what I don't know and that it is a kind of infringement making things up.

In the average realist novel that is what I suspect is going on. I fully accept the imagining of characters as a vital part of any art, but I am not sure I want to regard such characters as reality in the way that kind of novel invites me to do.

Then I speculate whether the wariness of that invitation - which may well be a flaw in me - is in some reflected in the way I respond to real people. Character sometimes seems to me a blur with blades, not a clear package.

Characters in the best novels - let's extend novels to all kinds of fiction and drama if you like, since that is what you have done - do in fact seem to hold me by a kind of presence rather than by development through action. They construct me as much as I construct them byme as a factor.

There are relatively few such characters. There are relatively few such characters in life too. All I suggest is that their presence, in both life and in the imagination, constructs us. We trust the way they construct us even when we do not know what has been constructed.

Few such.

Poet in Residence said...

Characters in novels are too often not real under-the-skin people in the sense that you can even say they are not coloured-in or drawn boldly with skill and art or even portrayed in a poetically sensitive way.
The so-called hero is too poorly written up in too many novels and invariably finds himself bumbling about and unfolding in a manner subservient to the story and in a kind of ad hoc and unconvincing way that makes him (or indeed her) and his story about as interesting as a toilet roll. And so after a few chapters we give up with the main character and therefore with the book.
The historical device is a technique many times used by authors to compensate for lack of depth in character, for if they throw our heroes into the fray of history they can safely paint them with a light brush, unravel them as they go along, but in truth they should not get away with it. It's characters like Hamlet, Ahab or Roskolnikov who make the novel into the novel we want to continue to read. We are not going to be sprung with strange surprises, we know these heroes as well as we know anybody, and so we are curious as to how they will deal with what they must deal with or how they will unravel at the last tug destiny.

Anonymous said...

I am fascinated by this. Truth-telling seems to need to travel a circular path for fictional characters: to engage with them the writer has to move from a truism to an untruth, in a quiet way that doesn't startle the horses who then move together along the path as it becomes the absolute truth of the page.

I find many fictional characters/constructs lose me in the first stage I have tried to artiulate and I cannot accept them into my head. Perhaps I won't worry so much about it now, and work harder to find those that I can.

Sue Guiney said...

I find this extremely interesting - not so much the problem of guilt, but the problem of character. As both a reader and a writer, I am moved first and foremost by character. I basically write about character, whether I am writing a novel, a play or a poem. For me, it is all an attempt to create new life and thereby have that new life somehow recreate me, in the way you describe as "construct." Of course, I say "attempt." We can not all write "great" literature, try as we might. But for me, literature is a way to try to understand personhood, what makes us who we are and thereby how we generate history and how we are affected by it. Maybe this is a selfish way of looking at literature. But for me, no matter how beautiful the words or how thrilling the story, if the work isn't about character then there can be no depth or substance.

George S said...

I fully accept the proposition and the disposition, Sue, it is just that I don't possess it to the degree you do. Clearly. It seems to me that novelists, as you put it, look through language to character in some way whereas language to me is never a transparent medium. The characte, for me, exists in language. That is not to do with some sense of 'beauty' - it is to do with a sense of reality.

I don't claim that my sense of reality is THE sense of reality/ Tis a poor thing but my own. Nor have I said - as I explained to Alfred - that character or story don't exist for me. I have tried as best I can to explain what 'life' in a character actually does mean for me. I refer to the feeling of presence rather than the sense of story.Presence for me comes primarily through language rather than through plot.

Anonymous said...

seems to be about an immersion that is language but exceeds any closed caption/definition as this kind of person or any one historical time bracketed off in time and space. More this constant coming and revisiting-as George says, a kind of haunting- like a buzz that hangs around and maybe keeps multiplying- this a presence-something never done with - never over- just folding over itself again and again- in different ways-deepening. That in a way is what we are made out of- what we construct or replicate endlessly in word-play- bounce back and forward between us. This imaginative junction; some kind of relatedness that makes one in the other as something continuous- never left over- never started again. The surplus that comes again and again-but startles us in its interuption- the haunted. That we know because it is our motioning towards each other; us. Language that exceeds itself. Our own seperation exceeds itself- charachters are brackets that we can never entirely believe in- because how do we move through that? Only if we are implicated directly- affected and affecting.